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On Polytheism, Rhetoric, and Politics

March 17, 2016 10 comments

Politics and polytheism is not a conflation.  Rather, the one’s involvement with the other is an outgrowth of being human.  Politics is defined by the OxfordDictionaries.com as “The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power”.  What we are seeing stretch out across the blogs, Facebook, and in personal interactions is not a bad thing, in my view.  It is absolutely necessary.  Polytheist communities need to figure out our politics, the rhetoric we employ, the authorities we trust and empower, and what hierarchies we are engaged in and will be choosing to build up.

Rhetoric is “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”.  It is how we speak, how we help our ideas to become known, and to become accepted.  As with politics, to do this well takes training, whether self-study or through mentors, teachers, and the like.  Rhetoric forms the foundation of how our religions informs us through the worldview it espouses and the place in which it sets us.  Politics is part of the rhetoric, rather than being able to separated from it.  When we talk of religious communities, there is rhetoric in that phrase alone, as much as what comes out of the community and its members.

The difference between those who are members of a religion and those who help to shape the core rhetoric is not a moral idea, but one of spheres of influence.  In other words, hierarchy.  You do not need to be named as a leader to be a leading voice that drives the rhetoric of a movement, any more than being the head of a religion actually means that you will drive the rhetoric of that religion.  This comes down to authority.

Authority is defined as “The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience“ and “The power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something”, and with regards to people, is “A person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert”.  Hierarchy is defined as “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority” and “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”

You may actively oppose the entire notion of leaders and still be a leader.  You may actively try to cultivate leadership and never be reckoned a leader.  Authority, then, is something given to a leader whether that leader is a willing one or not.  Authority is not always gained by consent.  In some cases authority invested in certain people is a given, such as an employee’s relationship with their supervisor in being employed by a major corporation, or being a Catholic and holding the Roman Catholic Church as the spiritual authority of the religion.  Authority in academia is invested in those who have positions within the field that are respected by those who have put the time and experience into the field and treat one another as peers.  In other cases, authority is taken up by a despot and enforced through the use of power.  Sometimes authority is seized upon by a person giving or being viewed as giving voice, such as in populist politics, to the energies, emotions, and feel of a given group of people.  Sometimes authority is relegated to an ‘us’ rather than a singular person, such as in consensus-building endeavors.  However it is made, relegated, maintained, taken or given, authority plays a part in communities.

In polytheism we have many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  Whether or not these Beings have authority over us as humans depends on your religion, its worldview, cosmology, these Beings and Their relationships to the religion itself, that religion’s worldview, Their placement(s)/function(s)/etc. within the cosmology, Their relationships with one another, the understanding of relationship between ourselves and the Holy Powers, and finally, potentially, your personal relationship with Them.

What is unmistakable in polytheism is that there is hierarchy and authority as part of these religions.  Hierarchy is part of polytheism because of the basis of discernment that polytheism as a word describes: “The belief in or worship of more than one god“.  If you are worshipping a God, then you are not the God being worshipped.  You are not the Gods, then.  On a baseline there must be a hierarchy within polytheism as there are Gods and not-Gods, those who are believed in or worshipped and those who are believing and worshipping.  To deny this is to deny the basic understanding, definition, and relationships that polytheism requires for a polytheist to be a polytheist.  It may not be a hard or inflexible hierarchy in every instance of it, but hierarchy is there nonetheless.

There is authority in polytheism because the cosmology is ordered in a certain fashion by and/or from many Power(s), and/or Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.  For instance, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, Wyrd is the authority which governs the existence of all things so that the Gods Themselves are bound up in it.  Odin is the authority which created Midgard in the first place in the Creation Story of the Northern Tradition.  He did it by exercising authority and power, and destroying the hierarchy that came before Him, that of His Grandfather Ymir’s reign.  He replaced the hierarchy of Ymir with His own.  He was given authority over the Aesir as chief by the Aesir who followed Him with this act into the formation of Asgard.  In this, He was also bound by the rules of the Aesir as chief, and was bound to the authority of the rules of Their tribe which bound Them together as Aesir.

The basic rhetoric of the Northern Tradition is that hierarchy and authority are found in many places, and in, of, or by relationship.  The different Worlds are held in authority by certain Gods: Surt in Muspelheim, Freyr in Alfheim, and Hela in Helheim, for instance.   Hierarchy is not merely how how a society orders itself.  There is actually hierarchy in nature, but it is not the first definition that this is found in, but the second.  That is, “An arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness”.  What is important to a rabbit is different than what is important to a wolf.  Who is important to that rabbit or wolf is likewise relative.  Threat vs. non-threat, food vs. not-food, pack/burrow vs. outside the pack/burrow.  Animals use discernment, and with discernment hierarchies are created.  The complexity of these classifications and their import into deeper topics aside, separating ourselves off from animals in this understanding is actually a big part of the problem I have with many of these criticisms because they are anthropocentric.

Hierarchy within polytheism does not mean that Gods, Ancestors, or individual spirits are less important than the Gods, but that each Being’s importance is relative.  Relative to what?  The cosmology, one another, the World(s) They inhabit/interact with, and with/to us.  In other words, that second definition I just pointed out above.

Hierarchy within polytheism in relation to a given God’s society, such as the Aesir, is bound up with the first definition: “A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority”.  Odin is the chieftain of the Aesir, as is Frigga.  More to the point, She keeps the keys to Asgard, and can deny Him entry, and has.  There are rules dictating the conduct of a chieftain and there are consequences to breaking those rules, and Odin paid that price.  There’s also the authority one wields and hierarchy of power considerations when one is within a God or Goddess’ place, such as Freya’s field Folkvanger or Frigga’s hall Fensalir.

This understanding in the Northern Tradition applies with regard to ourselves in our homes.  In my home visitors and I are in relation as guest and host which brings with it certain obligations as guest and as host.  Otherwise, we relate as cohabitants.  In either case, a guest and host both have rights, as do cohabitants, and there are rules of conduct we obey in these roles.  What hierarchy I enforce or is enforced as a host with what authority, when and how, is determined by if you are a new guest that does/does not understand these rules, or if you are part of the religion and understand these things well.  I might be more forgiving of someone new to my home who violates a small guest obligation whereas I may cleave deeper to tradition with people who are part of the Northern Tradition and have (or should have) this understanding.  Each Northern Tradition house may have different hierarchies and rules for their home.  When entering someone’s home for the first time I will usually ask for a rundown of any obligations that are placed upon me as a guest, rules of the house, and other things I am obligated to ask by being a member of the Northern Tradition.  If a rule of the house would violate an oath or a taboo and the host is unwilling or especially unable to accommodate me, I leave.  This is respectful of the host as the host, and myself as the guest, and it respects the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir I hold that oath or taboo with.

Several writers, both of blogs and comments, have noted that the current atmosphere in polytheist discourse is fostering hard-lining.  I am in agreement with Dver on Rhyd’s post here, that it mostly has to do with having to contrast ourselves in regards to other religious paths, and atheists.  The us vs them atmosphere is one in which clear dividing lines were laid down, and as differences between folks on different parts of the political spectrum started putting down deeper lines, these too became more hard-line as the two sides have begun defining themselves not as themselves, but in opposition to one another.  Again, I see these things as natural outgrowths rather than things to be avoided.  I would like them to be minded and acknowledged where and when we can.

How our personal politics plays into our religious expression is a highly personal thing even if we can say a few things across the board as polytheists.  It is also highly personal in relationship with our Gods.  Relating this to some of the current discussions that have gone around the polytheists and their communityies lately, I find that casting aspersion on those who offer bullets to the Morrigan is as unconscionable as casting aspersion on those who offer their bodies on the front lines of protest as an offering.

Where I see things are getting lost is when polytheists on one side say ‘But protesting is not offering water or bread and these distinctions are important’ and the other says ‘How can you say that my offering is not worthy?’ when the critique (however well or poorly it was made or received) was meant to include protests as a form of offering, but not at the exclusion of offerings of food and water.  Another aspect of this is that some of us simply do not have the time or cannot afford, at the expense of other obligations, to show up for a protest.  We cannot offer that pound of flesh because our families would suffer.  That does not make my offering of work to feed my family and buy a bottle of mead bought with that work less than one who spent those same eight hours protesting.  They are different and mean different things to our Holy Powers.  Further, they’re what we are capable of giving.

On the other side of this, especially in regards to the bullets-as-offerings, I find that folks are rather missing the point of offering bullets to Gods of war.

Let me take this from my own experience: I wanted to learn how to hunt, and appealed to Skaði for help in this.  Over the years I picked up a good traditional longbow with a hefty draw weight for relatively cheap from a friend who taught me how to use it.  A dear friend of mine (who I consider family) offered to teach me how to hunt.  I paid good money for the bow and arrows from my friend, and picked up other supplies down the road when my family-friend was getting ready to take me hunting.  I bought bales of hay to shoot at.  I prayed to the landvaettir when setting up the targets for their permission, and when I felt I received it, set them up.  I prayed to the landvaettir every time I started practice, and prayed to the spirit of the bow and the arrows, and to Skaði Herself.  Every shot I made I offered to Skaði.  Every frustrating miss, every on-target hit.  I have developed to the point where I have been able to hit the hay bale with every shot at the maximum range where I could expect to hit a deer with a traditional longbow.  These offerings are offerings of strain, anger, and skill.  Had I been able to get a deer, She and the landvaettir would have been getting offerings from the body of the deer.  The deer itself would have gotten offerings as well, and had it given permission or made its desire for this know, I would have crafted its bones and/or antlers into ritual objects, and/or given it a home in my house and made it regular offerings.

The dedication to learning how to shoot my bow, and the skill that I gained by training with the bow is not unlike those who train with the gun.  If my bow was the best way of defending myself or my family I would use it to kill a human being.  One person may be practicing with a gun to go to war, another to hunt, and another for self-defense.  I see these as in keeping with Skaði.  From what little I know of The Morrigan, this is in keeping with Her nature as a Goddess of sovereignty and war.  So too, I understand my offerings of arrows to Skaði are similar if not the same as another person offering The Morrigan bullets.

The difference is the geopolitical backdrop right now.  Arrows have been used for war, and are drenched in the blood of untold billions of lives.  The only reason they are not under the same microscope right now as bullets in regards to offerings is they’re not used by the US and other militaries.  Machetes are a a symbol of the Orisha Ogún, are tools for construction, navigation, harvesting, and are weapons of war and massacre in their own measure, and yet they receive none of the ire from the left reserved for bullets despite this.  This is why folks on the opposite side of this issue will levy charges of racism at those (predominantly) on the left in regards to this issue, among other ones in regards to slaughter and sacrifice.  It seems as though the religions of the African Diaspora, African Traditional Religions, Hinduism, and others with weapons like these as symbols and/or as part of offerings are currently being used in massacres and genocide are given a ‘pass’ for ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’.

What else are we to understand when those on the left say that ritual sacrifice is primitive, brutish, less evolved and the like, only levying this charge at polytheists but not, generally, at Santeros, Hindus, or at Jews or Muslims for their own ritual slaughters?  Even when consistently charged across the board, the charges of ‘being primitive’ or ‘less evolved’ are still steeped in colonialism and capitalist ideology of what is a ‘right’ relationship with the animals we eat: that of consumers rather than in relationship with them, even, or especially, when they are part of our meals.  This insertion of the consumer as the ‘right’ or ‘most right’ relationship with our food is a denial of a reciprocal relationship with our food.  This assertion is unacceptable to all the polytheist religions that I know of, whether one is vegetarian or not, because this actively denies our lives are utterly dependent on other lives, and also denies much, if not all of the dignity of the lives that are taken so we may live.  It denies that our interdependence on their lives relegating the Beings we eat as ‘the consumed’ alone, and in so doing, denies recognition of their full Being, and reciprocity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir which have given Their lives so we are able to live.

These ideas of relationships, reciprocity, and obligations are a fairly central in polytheism and animism, whether or not one’s thoughts on the matter are in regard to priests, priesthood, shamans, and other spiritual specialists from polytheist religions.  A friend of Rhyd Wildermuth said “if your relationship to a god is one where you ‘must’ do something for them or else, or you must do so because a priest told you that is what you must do, you are confusing a god with the government, Capitalism, or your parents”.

This understanding of ‘must’, of obligation and duty, is rather central to how polytheism operates.  Gebo, *ghosti, and other understandings of reciprocity fall under this understanding of ‘must’ in terms of how oneself, guests, strangers, and others are treated, what the obligations between kin are within the religion(s), and so on.  Obligation and duty are part of the basic skeleton of religious language, and it is through this understanding of the meaning of obligation and duty within our lives that we come to understand how to relate to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in the first place, which ones we would be best suited or called to in forging relationships, and which we should or must avoid.  Does that mean that we can refuse to participate in these obligations and duties, ignore taboos, and so on?  Certainly, but there are consequences for failing to live up to our part of a given relationship.

Priests serve a duty to the communities they serve, even if initially the only communities they serve are those of the Holy Powers.  In terms of human/Holy Power interactions, priests often serve a hierarchical role in polytheist religions because they are people who have dedicated time, energy, skill, and other aspects of their life, if not the whole of it, in service to the Gods.  Not everyone has the inclination, desire, aptitude, or ability to do so.  It is not that priests are inherently better than non-priests or that they are to be the sole source of authority on the Gods, but that they, ideally, have proven themselves trustworthy to their community, and are reckoned by other means, such as training, initiation, public recognition, and so on.  So yes, they are spiritual authorities, but they are one among many.

Those of us who cross over between spiritual specialist categories, as I do, having been called to service in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry as both a priest and a shaman, try to make it fairly clear where one role begins and the other ends.  Is there bleedover?  Sure, but I need to be able to point to something and say ‘this is priest work’ and ‘this is shaman work’, and ‘this is where they can mix’.  This means that discernment and determining what situation I should be wearing which hat, or if I am a good fit at all for the situation at hand, is quite important.  Again, this relates back to the person/people trusting me as an authority in the religion, that I carry that authority with integrity, and acting within the hierarchy I am part of in how things should be carried out as a priest, a shaman, and when it is/is not appropriate to mix the two, when it is not appropriate for me to be involved, and/or pass it on to someone else.

Understanding the roles of authority, hierarchy, rhetoric, and the clear understanding of our relationships with one another are, in my view, only part of spiritually mature religious groups.  Outwardly recognizing and affirming how we interact with one another and in what ways is part of how we respect each other and the spaces we are in.  This is a key piece to developing better, consistently constructive dialogue and bridge-building.  Respecting one another means I do not come into another’s space, say their ways are wrong and insist they should reform their religion to formalize or eliminate their lineages, hierarchy, and sacrifice.  It’s not my place because it isn’t my community.  Disagreement on powerful things such as authority, hierarchy, beliefs, and so on are one thing, but insistence on everyone towing the same line is quite another.  Likewise, it is rude for folks who disagree with formal sources of authority, hierarchy and/or sacrifice (including not only sacrifice of animals, but also food, liquids, of the self, service, and so on) to come into polytheist spaces where these are expectations, obligations, and ways of relating to the Holy Powers that are part of respect and worship in the religions that observe them. If you are not called to gather in community or to honor the Holy Powers in this way, far be it from me or anyone else to gainsay Them, but at least do me the respect that the selfsame Gods we may worship may call me to things you may not wish to do.

As I have said several times here on this show, the problem with painting with too broad a brush is it misses the nuances, colors, and textures of other brushes.  I may say things about polytheism on a broad basis, and folks are fully within their rights to disagree with me, even vehemently.  Gods know there are things I have in my own right, sacrifice and offerings being among the topics I have butted heads with others on.  There are a lot of polytheist religions, formal and informal, organized and individual.  Even within the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, we certainly don’t agree on everything.  As a tribalist Northern Tradition polytheist and Heathen, what my concern comes down to at the end of the day is those who share my personal community, my Kindred or tribe, and the places where we intersect with others.  It isn’t that the larger polytheist communities aren’t of concern to me, (otherwise why write or comment on this at all?) but that by putting my words out there would, I hope, be part of constructive dialogue around these things.  I would also hope that all these words would be taken in the context that I cannot, and will not speak for all polytheists.  I do want my voice listened to, and to be part of the Polytheist Movement and general polytheist dialogue, but I recognize my voice is one among a great many.

We do not need to agree on much, save being hospitable in one another’s spaces, acting with respect as both guest and host, and when disagreements arise, and Gods’ know they will, doing our best not to assume the worst of one another.

Leadership and Priesthood Part 2: Skillsets

February 18, 2014 2 comments

I was recently reading a piece on io9 “The Real Reason Why Techies Are the New Yuppies”, and it occurred to me as I was reading in the comments that there is a parallel here. Not being alive any earlier than the 1980s, and not officially part of Paganism/polytheism until 2004, I cannot speak on what Paganism or polytheism was like. I am wholly a product of the early 2000s in regards to my religious development as a polytheist. The parallel that struck me was actually in the comments section in reference to a person having computer use and literacy as a skillset. They had a far easier time navigating things like the Obamacare website, versus a person who was not as computer literate. The person with the skillset took about 5 minutes to find the relevant information, whereas his housekeeper was sobbing after 3 hours of trying to get the damned thing to work. This, to me, brought something to light.

A lot of spiritual specialists are working with wholly different skillsets oriented towards different things than most people. We are often wired different for our jobs by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we serve. Many of our initiations serve in this capacity to alter our spiritual form, functions, etc. to the task at hand. For some this makes a certain skillset far easier, and for others, nothing changes aside from getting the go-ahead from the Holy Powers in question to do a thing or perform a service. Even if we are not altered by the Holy Powers for the task at hand, our skillsets develop in differing ways, and so, it may appear that we’re really awesome all around from the outside, when really we might be hyper-specializing in a few areas.

So for some of us, to use an example, entering trance or meditative states is a whole hell of a lot easier than someone else. This can (and often is) simply a matter of “I have had x number of years doing/working on this”. Other times it is a matter of “I am, for whatever reason, wired to have these experiences easier” and others “I was rewired to have these experiences easier”. There’s tons of reasons for this, but at the end of the day it makes little difference in terms of my worth as a person, religious, spiritual, or otherwise. Spiritual practice is, like a great many other arts and disciplines, something that has to be worked at to develop the capacity to do it, and do it well. The ability to use a computer well, likewise, does not make me better as a human being compared to a person who does not. It merely means that my skillsets are in areas that are immediately useful to the task at hand. I cannot do carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or other forms of trade skills (though I would like to learn, even on an amateur level) but that does not make me less of a person. I am absolutely at a loss with cars; if it sounds weird, I trust someone who is better experienced with my car. So while I am a piss-poor mechanic I am not a piss-poor human. A mechanic expecting me to be on hir level in regards to car repair would be like me expecting a person wholly new to polytheism to be on my level in regards to shamanism or priest work. It’s not realistic, and not what I expect of others any more than my mechanic expects me to have his working knowledge of my car.

Much like my mechanic expects me to do baseline maintenance though, I think that it is wholly fine for spiritual specialists to have expectations of the people who come to us for help. Some of the first questions I ask anyone who comes to me are: “Do you have an altar/shrine to your Dead?” “What Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and/or spirits do you worship and/or have relationships with?” and “Do you do daily devotional work?” and “Do you do daily personal work like grounding, centering, cleansing, shielding, etc.?” For me, these questions are no different than my mechanic asking me “What is the make and model of the car?”, “When was the oil changed?”, “What have the sounds/experiences been in driving the car?”, and similar questions. He’s not being a jerk by asking me these baseline questions, he is being thorough. Because his skillset is in a different place than mine, he has to ask the basic questions before getting to the meat of what might be wrong with my car. I am being very general, but even so, some of these questions come up even when the problem is something specific, i.e. my door won’t go back up and the motor for the window makes a clicking sound.

The comment in the article also made me think of the privilege involved in developing these skillsets, and the privilege these skillsets can bring. To be able to develop some of these skillsets, you have to have certain things, among them a computer or at least disposable income for car/bus fare (i.e. library trips), books or materials. To be able to have access to good resources, and/or a good teacher so you can develop these skillsets is another privilege. To have good training or teachings passed on to you, to be able to afford the various things that make such training, education, and making it to rituals and events to have experiences made possible for oneself is privilege. Once you develop skillsets as a spiritual specialist there may be things that you are simply better at due to the training, the hard work, and/or experiences, as in getting into trance mentioned above. It does not make you inherently better, but it does mean that there are opportunities in terms of training, resources, and experiences that may be available to you that are not available to the average person.

I have had powerful religious experiences throughout my life, first as a Christian and then, as a Pagan. I find it harder to teach someone to connect to the Holy Powers who does not or cannot connect as readily because of this. I haven’t, in general, had to work as hard as others to experience the Presence of the Holy Powers. I do not understand what it is like to go through life with an absence of the Holy Powers being readily in one’s life in a recognizable way. This is a huge blind spot for me when I teach people. It is not like I sit down every time I meditate or sit and pray at a shrine and have a ‘kaboom!’ reaction (read: peak spiritual experience)…but I also look at my experiences and understand why folks might be skeptical of them, to say the least.

I recognize that my experiences are not average, nor that they should have to be. I also recognize that my skillset is different, not better, than others. There are a good deal of skillsets I would like to have, among them, gardening, and ecologically sound building skills, i.e. making cob, strawbale, and similar structures. I have a lot of focus in my life to upper-head type of things, like psychology and theology. Yet, when it comes to things like gardening vegetables, which to a gardener would probably be really simple, like the housekeeper in the comment I get overwhelmed by all the options and data. So, I ask questions of friends who have green thumbs. Do I want results like they get? Of course, but to expect at the start to have plants that grow as well as theirs is probably unrealistic without help. I don’t know much about growing vegetables. Dad has shown me how to do simple gardening, from tilling to planting to watering cycles. Before he gave his help my plants were withering and some died because I did not understand them well enough on my own. I am nothing like a master at this; I am lucky that the aloe plants we keep are so hardy. I have not managed to keep any other plants of mine alive inside the house.

This reminds me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that comes around my Facebook feed now and again: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” If I judged my gardening by Master Gardeners then I would continuously feel like a failure. Context for understanding where the quality of a skillset should be is pretty important.

Skillsets within religion are important. For some religions, understanding the text of the religion may or may not be important. Singing may be important to religious rites and services. There are too many individual instances to list here. Religion is more than a value system, or system of beliefs. It is lived. It is the way in which one conducts themselves in the world, understands their place, and relates to everything. With religious and spiritual engagement devotional work is a must. Religion requires certain skillsets to develop to be done well. While belief is not, to a great many polytheists, as important as worship and right relationship, the ground of these two things is in acknowledgment of the Holy Powers as real and worthy of worship. It is a given, not altogether different from a fish being surrounded by water.

So if there is a baseline set of skillsets for a polytheist, what are they?

There will, I imagine, be different emphases depending on the Gods and Goddesses one worships, Ancestors, spirits, one’s tradition(s), and individual group(s) within those traditions. Rather than write a list full of caveats and exceptions, here are some ideas of general skills to develop:

  • Develop and maintain relationships. Have or be willing to develop a working relationship with your Holy Powers, whether this is the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. This does not need to be a do-all end-all kind of devotion with every minute given over to your Gods, it just needs to be consistent. Even 5-15 minutes of prayer, song, or something where you directly engage with the Holy Powers a day is good.
  • Reciprocity. Have or be willing to develop or engage in a regular system of offerings, even if all you can afford is tap water. Take out the tap water after a full day on the altar, or, if you cannot because people in your home are hostile to your religion, respectfully flush the water or pour it out in a sink. Another option would be to put the offering in a bottle of water, collecting the offerings in the bottle each day, and taking it out to a river, lake, or a tree nearby.
  • Ask questions. I know of no Holy Powers that expected me to know or understand everything all at once. I am still learning about my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. If you have people you can contact, use them. If you are in luck and have a community that works with or worships the Holy Powers you are interested in learning about, so much the better.
  • Research. If you have a license to drive a car, you sunk some time into understanding how the car starts, runs, and operates. The Holy Powers deserve just as much, if not more consideration. If nothing else, ask for a recommended reading list. Some texts that would be useful to deepening an understanding of the Holy Powers may be on free websites, like Sacred-Texts.com, the Gutenberg Project, or similar public offerings.
  • Dedication. Do the work. Whatever it is, whether it is research offerings, prayers, meditation, gardening, cleaning, etc.
  • Ask for help. If you are stuck, if you do not understand something, or if you need or want more help even after asking for help, ask for help. As with ‘ask questions’, I don’t want people to not understand what is expected of them by a tradition or to have to reinvent the wheel, or repeat mistakes I or others have made.
  • Double or triple check. If something feels off, maybe it is. It is always better to be sure than to be wobbly on where you are planting your feet.
  • Simple divination. This can be throwing stones, dice, coins, or something small and simple that costs little to nothing in terms of money. While not everyone may have a knack for divination, a really simple yes/no divination style can be very helpful in answering questions, especially when you are stuck.
  • Decolonize your life. A lot of Western ideas are intertwined with Christianity, and many of the sources, including many pieces of lore, are heavily influenced if not corrupted by the scholars who wrote them down. Many scholars themselves have and still do go back and forth over how Christianity, i.e. in the Norse myths, influenced what was recointerrded, and what is genuine religion, holdovers, mixed tradition, and so on from the original peoples being written about. Clean engagement with the Holy Powers will require this, especially since many of our Gods do not fit well within modern Western paradigms of acceptability. Even speaking about the Gods as real Beings unto Themselves is met with derision in much of society, and untangling that from our minds, thoughts, and words is hard work. It requires us to be careful of the words we use, the ways in which we approach our Gods, and even the ways in which we approach the lore available to us. Treating Loki as the Norse Satan, for instance, is a holdover from Christianity. I am not saying you have to like Loki, or believe His actions/reactions are good, but putting Him where Satan was, especially if you are a convert from Christianity, belies the complex relationships the Gods have, and how important He is, given how intertwined He is with almost every myth we have. It also will interfere with how you understand the other Gods, as Loki is often a traveling companion to Thor, Odin, and other Gods.

Skillsets do not have to be developed in isolation either. You can develop skills while also doing devotional work, for instance. These are just a few ideas, but they are the main ones I can think of right now. It may be that you are or develop a craft, and making origami boats for Njord is devotional work for you. Researching your genealogy, and then including the Ancestors you find can be a powerful piece of devotional work. Gardening and tending your land, or a community garden can be a devotional activity involving your Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping your home would be a good offering not only to your Ancestors, but to Gods and spirits that are part of or have domain/dominion in the home, i.e. Frigga, Hestia, and houesvaettir, among a great many. While it will not, in my view, replace a daily offering of water or a weekly offering of food, finding ways to incorporate your Holy Powers in your life provides more ways of connection, dedication, and devotion.

To borrow a word from Rhyd Wildermuth, this process is re-enchanting the world around you, suffusing it with the understanding and active acknowledgment that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits can be connected with anywhere, and the world itself, wherever you are, is holy and a potential place for the sacred. This is good work wherever one is in their life, whatever their relationship is to the Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, spirits, or communities. Our skillsets will not look the same, nor should they. I would hope that as polytheists we could agree that the basics of devotional work, dedication, and right relationship with our Gods would be among the common ones. This does not require one be a spiritual specialist. The main requirement is that each of us is willing to do the work that each of us can do, each of us in our own time, space, and ability in accordance with our tradition(s) if any, and the will of our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits.

Leadership and Priesthood Part 1: Leadership vs. Priesthood

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

I have been a Pagan for 10 years, and in that time I have seen very few groups in which priests were not also the leaders of whatever group they were part of. This can be done, and done well. I am part of groups that are very well run and well taken care of by their priests.

Some time ago I went into the difference between what a shaman and a priest are. This is how I defined a priest then, and this is how I still view a priest:

“A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods. When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion. A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity. A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.”

Since this post I have felt the need to put more emphasis on the notion that a priest serves their Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits) first and foremost. That the priest’s first duty, within polytheism as I understand it, practice, and experience it, is service to the Gods. This may have absolutely nothing to do with one’s human community/communities. Much of my work with Anpu, as I noted in the article “Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest”, has nothing to do with living people. Much of my service to Him is to help the Dead. In the last seven or so years I have not done a single public ritual with anyone in regards to Him, yet He still counts me as His priest and others have come to me asking for help with Him. I serve Him, and I serve Him in the ways He asks me, and on behalf of Him with other people where called.

Being a priest does not, by default, make me the leader, or even a leader outside of certain circumstances. It makes me a priest. So if I am making the point that priests are not necessarily leaders, then what are leaders?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”. A leader is someone who may be a trailblazer, just as they might be someone modeling good values, just as they might be the head of a group. The focus of a leader, at the end of the day, is on people first and foremost. They are about the people they lead. A volunteer coordinator is a leader just as a head of the local Kuwanis Club is a leader. Often a leadership position is in service to other people. Contrast this what I have written above in regards to being a priest, and there is a stark contrast: the leader is about the people, and the priest is about the Gods. Their actions are geared towards their focus.

If you are a priest you might be a leader, just by default in a situation like a ritual. You might be the only leader(s), as many groups are lead by priests. However, I think that the onus of leadership is something that ought to be more shared. It is a lot to ask of a person to keep a personal cultus with Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, in addition to possibly holding rituals for a group, making offerings, and holding a job, and lead a group on top of all the other things required to make a group function well. The list of demands grows if your group is official with the government at all, or if you have a busy ritual schedule. That is a lot on one person, or even two people.

Some people are able to do all of this and keep their group running well. I think, though, that we would have more effective priests and groups in general if this was an option and not a necessity. Note: I am not saying every priest who is in this situation should give up their leadership roles.  From where I stand that is a lot of weight on a person’s shoulders. If they choose to, this is where the priest, especially if they are in or have been put in a leadership role, needs to be willing to speak up, set boundaries, and especially to delegate responsibilities and trust people to fulfill/look after them. In turn, those they trust with the leadership and various responsibilities need to follow through on their obligations and promises.

I saw this at work very effectively as a Catholic. There are councils set up to help the priests do their work, i.e. pastoral councils, financial councils and the like, so that the priests can focus on doing their mission: serving their God and in turn, their congregation. There is a lot of groundwork that has to be laid to make this work well for polytheists, but if we want to have dedicated priests, temples, and the like, some amount of hierarchy, organization, and heavy lifting will need doing. A council format allows for concerned folks to get together and pull their weight together, vote on ideas, and make things happen with a core membership that then goes out into the community and gets things done. In the Catholic Church they work with the priest hand-in-hand to make sure that what is needed is taking care of so the priest does not have to worry about the lights getting turned off or what they are going to do about needed work on the church. This is an effective model that works. Granted, the Catholic Church itself kicks in much-needed money so the wheels are greased. Yet, I believe this council model can effectively work so that our communities can make the amenities, like temples, charities, communities, public ritual space, and so on, that I have heard so many wish for. A priest alone trying to do all of this, pull of this together, would have a very, very hard time.

Why is now is a good time to think about this, and separate priests from large amounts of leadership responsibilities? Because we are coming into a time where we may have the people to do so. There are second, third, fourth, and even fifth generation polytheists, Pagans, and those of like mind who are coming into the world. I would like to see effective foundations laid for them all. Part of this, I see, is defining who and what we are, as-is the need to build lasting groups, buildings, and so on for them to inherit. Not everyone is a priest, nor should the notion that ‘everyone is their own priest’ mean that priests, themselves, and all the skillsets required to be an effective one, get put by the wayside.

More on skillsets in the next post.

Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest

April 18, 2013 7 comments

Another question from Valiel Elantári:

What difference do you make between “shaman” and “priest” ?

I had defined a shaman in Question 9 as ‘an intercessor between humanity and the Worlds of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.’  A priest may be that as well.  Where I see a marked difference is the kind of relationship a priest has vs. what a shaman has in their community.  A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods.  When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion.  A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity.  A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.

Some of the Work of a priest I do see as dovetailing with the Work of a shaman.  There can be very direct parallels between the two jobs’ requirements.  Both, for instance, need people to be spiritually clean, firm in their religious foundations, knowledgeable in their cosmology and in particular the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits they work with and/or worship.  Depending on the needs of the community, the two jobs may place requirements on the shoulders of a priest and a shaman that are similar, if not the same, such as blessing a newly birthed baby, weddings, fields before or after planting, etc.  The requirements of a priest may be wildly divergent priest to priest, tradition to tradition, the same with shamans, so saying anything across the board means somewhere I am getting something wrong.  The palette has too many colors for me to accurately paint with a select few.

In my own work as a priest and a shaman, my work as Odin’s priest is different from being a shaman in that He may ask me to deliver messages on His behalf as a priest whereas in my role as a shaman I may be asked to do a ritual action instead.  In a way, it seems to me I am engaged more in action serving Him as a shaman than I am as a priest, in which I tend to act more in the role of a passive message-passer.  Then again, as I am both, sometimes the two blend together in terms of my service to Him.  So the only thing I can say for certain here, is that I serve Him as He asks or demands of me.

In my Work as a priest of Anubis this is a bit markedly different from my service as Odin’s priest.  For one, Anubis demands very little of my time nowadays, but I can feel Him starting to really come back to the fore now that I have a new altar to the Dead, rather than, say, just the Military Dead or my Ancestors.  For another, Anubis’ requirement have been to offer Him offerings on occasion, but nothing like the dedication of Ancient Egyptian temple priests.  I have a small statue of Him that I feed offerings to, put water before, and occasionally bathe in similar fashion to how temple priests might have done.  However, that is more or less the extent of my historically-based practice.  Much of my work with Anubis is pure UPG, and when He calls upon me to help a Lost Dead or to deliver a message on a spirit’s behalf on His behalf, I do, and my services are rendered, and I go on my way.  My service to Anubis is more haphazard and as He needs me then I imagine other priests might serve, i.e. those who have permanent temple space.  Some of my Work with Him dovetails well with the Work I do for Odin, for instance, the consistent cleaning, grounding, and centering rituals.  Keeping myself clean, as well as keeping the altars clean, are part and parcel of my Work with Him.  So too, making sure the altar to the Dead is kept well, that offerings are laid out.  I must also be sure that the Dead are not insulted or treated ill in rituals, another place where my Work as a shaman dovetails with my priest Work.

In this way, priests, as with shamans, are intercessors in that those who come to us will learn that there are certain rites to be observed, and taboos to be avoided.  One taboo I have as a shaman is that whenever I do for another I must in some way, shape, or form, have Gebo from the other party.  Another, in my role as Anubis’ priest, is that I must not let the Dead be insulted or poorly treated.  It is on me to establish what requirements and taboos there are to working with these spirits, especially the person in question is coming to me for help or training.  That is part of the Work of any intercessor: you are, in some way, shape, or form, establishing and reestablishing the proper boundaries of and engaging in right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  For those who know them, you are reinforcing the boundaries of and encouraging engagement in right relationship.

I think this hits on another aspect of the difference between being a shaman and being a priest.  As a shaman I am often required to traverse boundaries, whether my own personal ones, or in journey work, or in transgressing some unspoken cultural boundary, i.e. Ancestor worship.  A shaman is often a boundary crosser, may be an ambassador of some kind to other communities including other Worlds, and puts hirself at risk so they, their community, and the relationships they hold can flourish.  A priest is often one who reinforces the boundaries, who stays within the boundaries and teaches from that place of power on how to live well, to live in right relationship, and establish communities in the teachings from their God(s) or Goddess(es).

To put it another way: a shaman often must journey to the útgarð for their Work whereas a priest’s main place and Work is done in the innangarð.

 

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